Thursday, October 11, 2012

Oral Histories

Do your parents have a box of old photographs with no identifying features?  Does your favorite aunt keep trying to give you memorabilia from her days as a roving reporter?  Does your grandfather regale you with stories and offer you tokens of his adventures?

You might not want the collections but you don't want to lose the stories. 

Sit down with Mom and Dad and have them tell you about the people, places and events in those old images. 

Interview your aunt about her days on the beat and have her tell you about the people she met and the meaning of all that memorabilia.  Otherwise, that history might be lost forever.

It is not really that long ago that the source of much of our family histories were from the oral tradition and reminiscences of people who lived it.  Maintain that tradition and speak to older family members to learn about your family history.

Tips for conducting an oral interview

  • Ask permission to take notes or record the discussion.
  • Have a list of questions to start the conversation but don't be too tied to a specific list or order. Be able to change course according to the whims of the speaker.  Ask follow-up questions and be flexible. 
  • Start with brief, biographical questions for context and to help your subject relax.
  • Use open ended questions that invite a detailed response rather than a yes / no answer.
  • Give the person time to think and answer.  Be prepared to wait and learn to be comfortable with silence.
  • Be an active listener and check understanding of words, phrases and references.
  • Rather than one long marathon session, plan on multiple smaller ones.
  • Make notes shortly after the conversation while it is fresh in your mind.

Most people welcome the opportunity to share their stories. For you, it can be gift, a chance to spend some time connecting with family and friends.  I remember a few sessions when I encouraged my parents to label pictures and they brought out one of the boxes then went back and forth with stories while I noted details on the backs of the photos they described. Those were fun evenings with lots of laughter. I feel lucky to have shared that time with them and only wish we had done it more often. Now they have both died and I have found more boxes of unmarked photos from their younger days.

Time to connect and gather the stories is never wasted.
So, decline the generous offer of a stuffed swordfish and invite Gramps to pose with his trophy and tell you again about the day he caught it - and how it fought the good fight.  You'll be glad that you did!

A few resources

Oral History Toolkit from DoHistory

Genealogy at

Canadian Oral History Society

International Oral History Association

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